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Cayla Ontko

Graduate Student, Penn Laboratory, Molecular Physiology and Biophysics

I was born and raised in Orlando, Florida and finished high school in Anaheim, California. I went to undergrad at Vanderbilt University where I majored in Biological Sciences and minored in Chemistry and Studio Art. In 2018, I graduated and began my PhD in Vanderbilt’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Program. I currently work in John S. Penn’s lab in the department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, studying the anti-inflammatory potential of endocannabinoids to slow the disease progression of diabetic retinopathy.

The ultimate goal of my thesis project is to determine if endocannabinoids (eCB) can slow DR disease progression by decreasing cytokine-promoted inflammation. Inflammatory cytokines are elevated in the vitreous and retina of diabetic patients and animals respectively, causing damage to the retinal vasculature known as diabetic retinopathy (DR). Previously, eCB-related epoxides have been shown to inhibit DR-simulated inflammation in vitro and in vivo, however, it is proposed that eCB are more suitable for therapeutic adaptation due to increased stability and known cognate receptors. In particular, eCB may be more potent working through cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2), whose activation has been shown to mitigate cellular and tissue inflammation. We hypothesize that the increased inflammation caused by diabetic retinal conditions, as well as the retina’s pro-inflammatory response to this environmental inflammation, can be mitigated by increasing eCB levels and/or CB2 activation. Knowledge gained from focused in vitro studies will facilitate the development of eCB-related therapeutic strategies against the inflammation-driven progression of DR.